Her name is Maranda, and she’s running naked across my snow-covered yard. I peer through my cracked Venetian blinds. Water droplets fly off her breasts, which bounce with every step she takes. Her soaked black hair lies flat against her shoulders. Her pubic hair is as dark as her head, and I’m secretly glad, because I don’t like how young girls dye their hair now. I’ve never spoken to her, but I’m in love. She’s Maranda—naked, and wild, and she’s pounding on my door.
“Hello? Please open up. It’s an emergency!”
I use two fingers to force the blinds open. A fire truck screams down the street. The isolated street has little traffic, but some of the neighbors have come out to stare. There’s Mrs. Willis, whose lover visits her over the noon hour. And the Filbert twins, who leave poisoned tuna in the yard to kill cats. I know, because at night I remove their handiwork and scrape it down my garbage disposal.
But Maranda—she’s new to this neighborhood. Maranda frightens me. I want to meet her, but shyness takes me. I clench my clammy hands in my pockets. Sweat pours down my forehead. She’s come to me—just like my dreams, the girl next door—and I don’t dare open the door. I’m just an ugly old man, and I can’t speak to this incredible girl.
The siren wails outside my door. Maranda is screaming. “Please—I need a bathrobe or something. It’s freezing out here. My house is on fire—”
With that word—fire—I unclench my hands. I force myself into action so memory can’t overcome me. I unbolt all three locks and open the door. “Come in,” I say, my voice rough. I try to remember the last time I spoke to someone. I suppose I spoke to the TV on Tuesday night when the news upset me.
Maranda slips through my door and closes it behind her. She stares at me without covering her nakedness. Maranda’s not a pretty girl; her nose is too large, her brown eyes uneven. She’s got buckteeth that braces would have fixed. But her skin is flawless—a pure creamy color. She’s not entirely naked; she wears Ziploc baggies over her hands and rubber bands around her wrists. Her skin peels red inside the baggies.
“Help me,” she says. She’s not beautiful, but she compels me. I grab my robe from the bathroom. It’s an old man’s striped robe and will look terrible on her, but I have nothing else. It’s a crime to hide Maranda’s beauty from the world. But I remember myself in a borrowed bathrobe, fifty years ago—a girl’s robe, pink, and the firemen at my house and—and I don’t want to remember; I want Maranda.
I return to the room and catch my breath. She’s beautifully backlit against the lamp, like a statue. She’s looking through my blinds, watching the firemen run into her house. She doesn’t know I’m here, which helps me feel safe. I can pretend she’s just a shape—like when she does yoga at night. She practices yoga nude. I know because of her silhouettes on the curtains. I don’t mean to look, but her window is near mine. Looking at her shape prevents sinful thoughts about things I shouldn’t do.
“Here,” I say, offering the robe. She snatches it and wriggles her clumsy bag-covered hands through the sleeves.
She’s opening the door to leave, and I can’t handle it. “Wait!” I cry out. She turns her head. I can’t say how much I want her to stay, so I ask, “Do you want slippers too?”
She pauses, one foot out the door. A winter wind blows on us. The firemen have vanished into her house, which isn’t burning. “Yeah.”
I don’t want those delicate feet frozen. I get my slippers—padded foam monstrosities, suitable for hiding bunions. She slips into them and leaves.
This is the best day I’ve had in months. I peer out the window. Maranda wears my bathrobe and stands in my slippers on the fresh snow. Her peeling hands are no longer strange to me. They’re part of her charm—of her being Maranda. She’s talking to an attractive fireman near her house. He looks like a young Clark Gable with a tiny moustache. He flashes Maranda a brilliant smile and shrugs at something she says. I hate him already, for talking with Maranda, but I can’t tear my eyes off him.
Clark points at her door, and they go inside. I go to my bedroom, but I can’t see through her curtains in daylight. It feels like they stay inside forever. I wait. Eventually Clark comes out the front door and climbs on the firetruck. I watch the truck speed away. I’m lost in memories of another firetruck, long ago. I remember the tall blond fireman who patted my head when I cried against his thigh.
I’m thinking of my sister and her boyfriend. I’m ten, and they’re fifteen. My parents are away for the weekend. I’m listening to my sister and her boyfriend through the heating vent—her occasional gasps, his grunts and single shout. I think of them together, my sister with this tall, dark-haired boy—maybe a man, with his broad shoulders and deep voice.
My sister’s boyfriend—I remember him clearly. For a moment, my vision shifts black-and-white. On the floor, my newspaper’s edges curl and blacken. I dump a glass of water on it. The soaked newsprint stains my carpet. Despite my promise to myself, these things still happen. I must control the fire. I can’t have another accident. I vow to read Genesis 19 twice tonight to remind me what happens to sinners.
Twenty minutes later, Maranda returns. This time, she carries my robe and slippers over one arm. She wears jeans, sneakers, and a wool coat covered in cat hair. The baggies are gone, and white quilted gloves cover her hands. Her hair is dried and pinned up. I realize I’ve never seen Maranda more beautiful—and she’s coming to see me.
Should I open the door as she arrives? No, she’ll know I’ve been waiting for her. I close the gap in the blinds and remain seated until she knocks.
“Who is it?” I call, knowing the answer, wanting to hear it anyway.
“Your neighbor. I’ve got your clothes for you.”
I open the door. She steps inside and grins at me. “Hi,” she says. “Sorry about this morning.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
“Thank you for letting me borrow these.” She offers the robe and slippers.
I take them and set them on the couch. “It was my pleasure.”
“That was a weird way to meet you.”
“I suppose it was.”
“My name’s Maranda. Spelled with three A’s.” “It’s nice to meet you.” I know her name is Maranda. I checked her mailbox once when she was gone. It held two bills and a copy of Cosmopolitan addressed to Maranda Buddle. I stood there, debating whether the ‘Maranda’ was misspelled. Maybe some anonymous database had robbed her name of an I and given her an A. But since all three spellings agreed, I decided she must really be a Maranda. The Buddle part confused me until I decided that she probably had a terrible childhood and this last name was her painful legacy. A girl like Maranda should by all rights be a Du Bois, or a Lexington, or a Sainte-Croix. Perhaps, I think, she is famous somehow, and this name helps her hide from obsessive fans.
“Can I look at these?” she asks, wandering over to the wall. She examines the cheap prints. I watch her, hoping she’ll speak again. She stops at the image of Sodom burning and looks at Lot’s fearful expression as he flees. I keep the city of sin above my TV, so I see it every day.
“There wasn’t even a fire,” she says abruptly, turning around. “It was mist from my shower. It set off the alarm. Can you believe that?”
“Hmm?” I pick up my bathrobe to hide my nervous hands.
“No fire,” she says sharply, like she thinks I’m deaf. “Just the shower. The fireman said that sometimes in these older rental houses, a really long shower sets off the smoke alarms. It’s like water vapor particles or something. They trigger the alarm if it’s too close to the bathroom. Did you know that could happen?”
I picture Clark in Maranda’s bathroom, pointing at the smoke alarm. She’s next to him, wearing my bathrobe, pressed against his strong shoulder. Clark gives her a winning smile. He shows her how the alarm works, tells her about water vapor and how much he likes being a fireman. She leans closer, gazing into his incredible eyes, and—I erase the thought. “I didn’t know that.”
“Me neither.” She leans against the wall. “Thanks for the clothes. I totally freaked out. I was sure I smelled smoke, but I guess it was lint in the heater or something.” Maranda laughs and rolls her eyes. She speaks so quickly it’s hard to understand her. “I feel pretty silly for running out naked. I figure the end of the world must be something like that. Everyone just gets interrupted in the middle of something. You know? Taking a shower, or making cookies. Wouldn’t that suck? You’re making cookies, and they’re two minutes from being done, and the world ends? I’d wish I’d eaten cookie dough when I had the chance. Wouldn’t you?”
“What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, officially,” she says with a serious look. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve got these gloves on and I’ve put the cream underneath them.” She studies my face like she’s expecting something, then continues with a practiced speech. “I’m a hand model. I do pictures in magazines. I’m just starting my career, but I’m out of work right now because I have eczema on my hands. The cream is supposed to cure it.”
“Oh,” I say, having no response to that.
“Yep! I’ve posed for Vaseline Intensive Care lotion and Maybelline nail polish. That one ad, with a hand wearing Vermillion Vixen, fingers slightly bent? It’s my right hand. Being a hand model is great, but it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. I can’t write much, for one thing. Because you get these calluses on your middle finger.” She holds up her hand and points at the spot, which I can’t see through the glove. “But it’s a great conversation starter. The fireman asked me about the baggies on my hands.”
Maranda gives a buck-toothed smile. Cautiously, I smile back and relax a little. I decide that a career in hand modeling is appropriate for her. I wonder if she fears paper cuts when she opens her mail. She says, “I’m glad my house isn’t on fire. You ever think about that? Your house burning down, maybe with you inside it?”
Her words are like smoke over my mood. “All the time,” I whisper, turning away to hide my face.
“There’s no way to know when it’ll happen, you know? Things like that are always surprises. You’re just napping, or cleaning hair out of the drain, or something, and—”
“If you always expect it, you can prevent it,” I say, looking at her. It’s true. If you think about your house burning down, every minute, every hour, then it never does. Fires start when you think of other things—things that are wrong.
Maranda blinks. “Um, look, I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
“No.” She is Maranda, and she can’t say anything wrong. That’s what I do—say wrong things. That’s why I say so little.
“Do you know someone who was in a fire?”
My memories flare. Before I can censor, I blurt out, “Yes. My sister’s boyfriend died in a house fire when I was ten.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, looking down. “Um, shit. I shouldn’t have—look, I have a big mouth. I’m sorry. I won’t bother you anymore. Bye.”
She slinks toward the door. I want to cry out, Wait, Maranda! You are young and alive and I need you. I need you to make me normal. But it comes out as, “Come back sometime.”
She eyes me from the door, her gloved hand poised to close it. “Okay,” she says, grinning. “I’m kinda lonely too.” The door closes. I’m alone with my bathrobe and slippers and burnt-edged newspaper, waiting for her to return.
But Maranda doesn’t return. For a week I watch her carefully. She stays at home a lot. I wonder if hand models get unemployment insurance. What happens to Maranda if an accident damages her hands forever? I can’t bear to think of her pretty white hands broken and burned. It reminds me of that dream about my sister’s boyfriend—the one where he appears before me bare-chested. His powerful hands reach for me and stroke my neck. That’s when I notice they’re charred black. This dream wakes me from even the deepest sleep.
I keep my daily habits, waiting for Maranda. When Mrs. Tully leaves for work, I rescue her lawn gnomes from the dumpster where teenagers threw them. I replace poisoned tuna with a dish of chicken. One of the strays lets me pet him, and this is the best part of my day. He’s black, like the fireman’s hair—like Maranda’s hair. Maranda comes out once and gets into her car. She waves at me, but drives away.
I watch Maranda doing yoga at nights, her body outlined on the curtain. I imagine her naked, as I saw her last week. I visualize every detail of her body. I don’t want to have sex with Maranda—far from it, that’s the last thing on my mind. I just want to be with her, to be sure she’s safe. I want her here to dampen me—to stop God from destroying me.
This is what keeps me awake at night, when Maranda is long asleep. I fold my hands on the quilt and fight with myself. I don’t want to break my promise, but I must see Maranda.
Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps I could go visit her, or call and invite her over. But why would she want to visit an old man? She didn’t mean it, she won’t come see me.
Then I must see her, must tell her to make me normal.
No! I can’t go to her, I must call her over here so she’s not in danger.
I’ll be careful this time. I’ve learned to control myself. I can break my promise if I’m careful. I must go see Maranda.
I close my eyes. It’s like dreaming, but fainter. My vision shifts black-and-white and I see her house. The wood paneling glows in this gray world. It’s snowing again. My body is light as smoke when I slip out my cracked window. Snowflakes melt as they fall through me. Her window is closed, so I go through the dryer vent. I float inside her house, drifting into her bedroom. Her curtains glow, as does her bookshelf. I can’t see Maranda clearly because I’m blinded by her quilt and pillow. They shine brilliant white. I wonder if there’s any way to lecture her about buying flame-retardant bedding, and decide there isn’t.
I can see her head’s shape as a darker outline against the brightness. She looks like a photo negative as she sleeps—not like the real Maranda. Here she’s darkness, with only her hair as light. The heat from my presence makes her sweat, and she pushes the quilt away.
But it’s not enough just to see her. I want to touch her and stroke her hair, so she knows I’m keeping her safe. I want her voice, everything she says—to hear her speak and know she addresses me. To have her save me.
I drift away. A terrible idea comes to me. I could bring her. Yes, bring her to me, running across my lawn again. No, I can’t do it. I’d break my promise. But I’ve broken my promise already.
No, not broken, just bent. I can bend it further. I could make a little one. Just a little one. Enough to make some smoke.
No, I shouldn’t. Oh God, I shouldn’t.
I float into the bathroom. The white toilet paper catches my eye, and against my will I’m tempted. I see the face of Maranda’s fireman. And before I can stop myself, the toilet paper starts to smoke. It feels like release—like urinating after holding it in for hours. The paper bursts into flames. The sight returns me to my senses. I panic, realizing what I’ve done—and what I might do, if I stay. I flee Maranda’s house through the vent and return home.
I lie in bed, staring through my window at her house. Her bathroom is on the far side where I can’t see it. Has something else caught fire—the towels, the curtains? I hate myself for what I’ve done. I watch and wait.
Soon I see Maranda standing in the snow, wrapped in her winter coat. A siren screams. The firetruck pulls up, and Clark jumps off.
I open my front door so Maranda knows I’m there. She waves at me.
“I got dressed this time,” she calls. She follows Clark inside her house. My heart speeds up, and I clench my fists. Maranda, alone with Clark. I close my door and lean against it, thinking of the fireman. My vision blurs. Colors vanish. I see the pure white newspaper on my table. My curtains in white, my armchair gray, the carpet gray, my bathrobe white—.
No! I control myself. I won’t break my promise. This time I mean it. It doesn’t matter if it’s for Maranda. I won’t do it again!
I force my normal vision to return. The armchair is blue, the carpet brown. I sit down. I’m in control. I can choose not to start fires. I’m still sitting there when she knocks on my door. I don’t understand how, but Maranda has come to me again.
“Hello?” she calls.
I open the door. She’s bundled in her coat, smiling. In her gloved hand is a warped piece of white plastic. Behind her, the firetruck drives away. “Maranda,” I whisper.
“Can I come in? It’s cold out here.”
“Yes.” I stand aside. She comes in and closes the door behind her. Then she laughs wildly, and it’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.
“Oh, man. This is crazy,” she says. “I’ve got to tell someone. Guess what happened.”
“I don’t know.”
She sprawls in my armchair as if she lives with me. “So remember last week when the shower vapor set it off? Well, this time my alarm went off again, and I really did smell smoke! I didn’t want to look stupid like before, so I looked for the source of it, and this,” she says, waving the plastic at me, “this is the inside of my toilet paper roll. You know, the thingie that spins in the center. So the toilet paper was missing, and there was a little pile of ash below it!”
“That’s not the weirdest part. Oh my god, so Jeremy—that’s the cute fireman, dark hair, you know him? He came again and had no idea how it happened. He said I must’ve set the toilet paper on fire, and I laughed and said why would I do that?”
“I mean, can you believe this? I don’t know. Maybe the stuff just catches fire sometimes. I’m lucky that everything nearby was inflammable.”
“Nonflammable,” I correct her.
“Inflammable means the same as flammable. They both mean things that burn.”
She laughs. “But they should be opposites.”
“Everything burns if it’s hot enough,” I say bitterly, turning away.
Maranda doesn’t seem to notice. She says, “Jeremy asked me out. Next Friday. Isn’t that sweet?”
I don’t answer, but I glance at her. Maranda’s face falls. “Okay, maybe not. Hey, whatever.”
“Yes,” I say, too late.
Maranda gets up and walks to my door. “I’ve got to go,” she says, and she leaves. I stare at the door. Everything in my life is flammable, inflammable. I’ve just never had enough heat. Not until now, with her fireman’s image burned into my mind. Everything burns eventually, Maranda.
It’s Friday. Maranda walks to the waiting cab. I’ve been watching her door for three hours, not knowing if Clark will pick her up or if she’ll meet him there—wherever “there” is.
Under her coat she wears a short black dress—too short, Maranda—and tall black heels—too tall, Maranda—and carries a small purse in her gloved hands. I’m sure it holds no more than cab fare, maybe some lipstick. She slips a little on the ice as she enters the cab.
I watch her go. One hand spreads the blinds and the other crushes the armchair. Clark will spend the evening with her, with my Maranda, and touch those gloved hands. I imagine his hands around hers: strong hands surrounding her gloves, the muscled arm draped over her shoulders. Perhaps he’ll say, “May I take your coat?” And she’ll smile, give a little giggle, and shrug the coat off her shoulders. Meanwhile he’ll be looking at her body, thinking of her naked, imagining himself thrusting into her while she gasps her pleasure. This is how men are, Maranda. This is what I must save you from.
I stare at the icy street. I can’t go on like this. I must tell her how I feel, phrasing it so I don’t scare her: Maranda, I love you. It’s intellectual love, aesthetic love—higher quality than the carnal love your fireman offers. This fireman—he wants things you shouldn’t do. But I won’t touch you, not that way. I’ll cherish you, and you’ll save me.
I decide to tell her when she returns. Hours pass. I go to the toilet once and hurry back, fearing I’ve missed her. It’s late when a black truck pulls up to Maranda’s house. She stumbles from the passenger side, laughing too loudly. Clark gets out and hurries around to Maranda. He holds her arm and helps her over the icy sidewalk. They go inside together.
The battle begins again. No, I can’t do it, look what happened last time I broke my promise.
—Oh, but you did break your promise, it’s easy enough to do again. You must go to her, you must see for yourself, see what he does, see the fireman.
I leave my house and drift into hers. In the bedroom, their dark shapes contrast the quilt’s whiteness. Maranda clings to the headboard, kneeling on the mattress, with Clark behind her like an animal. His strong arms hold her waist, and his face contorts with pleasure. He’s relentless. My Maranda, degraded this way, my beautiful, treasured Maranda. So undeniable, the fireman. She had no chance, and neither do I. In this moment I understand what will never be. Maranda will never save me.
Rage burns inside me. I can’t erase Clark from my mind. I float into the living room and ignite the curtains. Like gasoline-soaked rags, they flare into color—the only orange in my black-and-white vision. Both of you! Burn, and stop tormenting me! Leave me be, and stop tearing my mind! But as the curtains ignite, I regret my sin—I can’t burn them, I can’t kill them. I don’t want to be what I am.
I fly home. I jump from my bed and look at Maranda’s house. Smoke rises from the window. I run outside and lose my slippers in the snow. My robe flies open and exposes my nakedness, but I don’t have time for shame.
Her door is locked. I find a rock and break the front window. Glass shatters into the house. Black smoke curls from the irregular gap. I break the remaining glass with the back of my hand, leaving bloody smears on the sill. I grab the window’s edges and hoist myself through, feeling the age in my arms. My bathrobe snags on the window, and I leave it where it’s caught. I climb naked into her house, kneeling on glass and choking on smoke.
I keep low. I crawl towards the bedroom to save Maranda. I need to know if I’m bad, if I’m wrong for what I am. I’m sure that if I save her I can save myself. The heat overwhelms me. I can’t see past my hands. I don’t see flames yet, but I know they’re near.
I hear a meow. Maranda’s cat is cowering under a chair. Oh, Maranda, I think as I glance towards the bedroom, but I can’t leave the cat to die. I scoop the cat into my arms and crawl back to the window. She squirms away and leaps into the snow.
I turn back towards the bedroom, but the smoke thickens. Coughs wrack my body. I wish I’d kept my bathrobe so I could soak it in water and breathe underneath it. It’s too late for that now.
I crawl a few feet. Sweat drips from my face. The smoke is so thick I’m not sure where I’m going. I bump into a wall. I’m lost in Maranda’s house, in Maranda’s world. I can’t think. I’m breathing toxic gas. I cough hard and it hurts. Will the firemen come? Don’t the firemen always come?
I must get out. But if I can’t save Maranda, how can I save myself? Perhaps if I break my promise once more
—to escape, then never again—
—yes. I’ll burn forever, but—
I break my promise, or maybe I’m just dreaming. It no longer matters. In black-and-white, I see it like a film: My body, naked, lying on Maranda’s floor. Orange flames approach from one side. Smoke curls around me. In the distance I hear sirens. Clark crawls in and grabs my body’s wrist. He wraps an arm around my waist and slings me over his shoulders. This strong young man carries me outside like a doll. He puts his ear to my chest, and how I want to stroke that black hair, to let it play under my fingers. But I’m unconscious and only watching, drifting out of time and place.
He tilts my head back and presses his mouth onto mine. Clark forces air into my lungs—two deep breaths. He presses my chest with both hands, fifteen times. With each push, my heart pulses in response.
Nearby, Maranda sobs into her gloves. “He tried to save me. He wanted to be a hero.”
That’s not it, not what I wanted at all. The intimacy of Clark’s mouth on mine is cool rain on my fire. I want to join my body, to experience every sense’s desire. I want to breathe back to him, to say, Yes, I know, I have air for you too. Please breathe it and know it’s ours. Let this be my salvation.
The firetruck arrives, and other men spray the fire down with blasts of water. I know I’ll never start another fire. My body sputters and chokes, and Clark—Jeremy—lifts his mouth from mine. He yells for blankets, and the men bring them.
Maranda strokes my shoulders. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be just fine.” Slowly I return to my body, knowing she’s right, that I’m free of Maranda and all that she is. I reach for the fireman and squeeze his hand. I’m lying naked in a snow-covered yard. I know a fireman, and his name is Jeremy.
Originally published in Sybil’s Garage issue #5 (2008).
Copyright © 2008 by Vylar Kaftan. All rights reserved.